"Clean" Energy's Dirty Secret: Cancer

Abound Solar is Colorado’s homegrown Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) solar panel manufacturer. With more than $400 million in taxpayer-funded loan guarantees and tax incentives, Abound employs roughly 350 people with plans for another 850 to 1000 employees in an Indiana facility sometime in 2012 or 2013.

GE’s entry into the Colorado market comes on the heels of its acquisition of Colorado-based PrimeStar Solar, culminating in plans to develop a $300 million project that promises those 355 jobs—at a cost of $28 million in municipal and state-based incentives.

What kind of solar panels will GE’s Colorado plant manufacture? Cadmium telluride, the same as Abound Solar, which the New York Times declared would put the loan guaranteed Abound—and by extension, taxpayers—“at risk.”

All of these solar panel producers have something in common; they need raw materials, specifically rare earth minerals, to manufacture their products. The U.S. currently does little mining or processing of rare earths.

When the Denver Post fawned over the taxpayer-subsidized GE solar manufacturing plant coming to Colorado, it concluded with the typical appeal to “energy independence.”

But solar energy does not equate to “energy independence” because it relies upon other countries, namely China, for the necessary supply of rare earths. Late last year, the Department of Energy (DOE) acknowledged the problem and published a report titled “Critical Materials Strategies” which focused on rare earths used in the production of various “clean” technologies.

‘Current global materials markets pose several challenges to the growing clean energy economy. Lead times with respect to new mining operations are long (from 2–10 years). Thus, the supply response to scarcity may be slow, limiting production of technologies that depend on such mining operations or causing sharp price increases. In addition, production of some materials is at present heavily concentrated in one or a small number of countries. (More than 95% of current production capacity for rare earth metals is currently in China.) Concentration of production in any supplier creates risks for global markets and creates geopolitical dynamics with the potential to affect other strategic interests of the United States.’

So the country that is challenging the U.S. economically and is the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt also controls the very materials needed to ensure our “energy independence.”

Rare earths are needed for more than just solar panels. They are used for wind turbines and hybrid car batteries. And if our “energy independence” comes from renewables such as solar, they will have to compete with iPods, cell phones, computers, batteries, and more.

The myth that green energy is “clean” energy

Manufacturing solar panels isn’t clean. Two of the three solar companies profiled earlier, GE and Abound, already produce or plan to make Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) thin film photovoltaics (PV). CdTe is a compound formed from Cadmium and Tellurium. While Tellurium is rare, Cadmium is a highly toxic human carcinogen. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the compound CdTe is also a carcinogen. Depending on the level of exposure, health effects range from kidney damage, fragile bones, lung damage, and death.

Because the U.S. doesn’t mine these much of these elements here, U.S. manufacturers look elsewhere. Sadly, individual tragedy in China’s “cancer villages” reveals the dirty secret of “clean energy.”

‘Yun Yaoshun's two granddaughters died at the ages of 12 and 18, succumbing to kidney and stomach cancer even though these types of cancers rarely affect children. The World Health Organization has suggested that the high rate of such digestive cancers are due to the ingestion of polluted water.

The river where the children played stretches from the bottom of the Daboshan mine…Its waters are contaminated by cadmium, lead, indium and zinc and other metals.’

Mining in China has turned towns and hamlets into “cancer villages.” Rivers run murky white to shades of orange. Fish and ducks are dead. And villagers bury friends and neighbors who die of cancer in their 30s and 40s reports Intellasia.

Another eye-opening news report on rare earth mining and processing from the Channel 4 in the United Kingdom claims, “it doesn’t look very green, rare earth processing in China is a messy, dangerous, polluting business. It uses toxic chemicals…workers have little or no protection.”

We still don’t know how large solar installations covering thousands of acres in the desert over long periods of time will affect the ecosystem.

To answer our earlier question, is the taxpayer “investment” in solar power worth the cost to achieve “energy independence” with “clean” power sources? It’s a trick question because solar is neither a domestic product nor a clean one.

The bottom line is that all energy sources come with some type of risk and to assume that solar panels are an economic and environmental panacea is wrong, despite what the Denver Post and other New Energy Economy cheerleaders would like us to believe.

If we are going to continue on the path of alternative energy, we should do so with out eyes wide open.


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